In his provocatively titled recent book, The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert I. Sutton argues for zero tolerance of “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” in the workplace. These individuals systematically prey on their co-workers, especially the more vulnerable ones, leaving their victims feeling humiliated, belittled, and demoralized. Their weapons include personal insults, threats and intimidation, hostile e-mails, public ridicule, and scornful interruptions. They hurt organizational performance as well as the people they target. In the environments that they poison, enthusiasm for work gives way to anxiety, resentment, and a longing to get out.
The importance of a civil workplace struck Sutton more than 15 years ago during a department meeting at Stanford University, where he teaches. As his colleagues debated hiring a candidate for a faculty position, one of them remarked, “Listen, I don’t care if that guy won the Nobel Prize ... I just don’t want any assholes ruining our group.” Sutton describes the group as a collegial and supportive small department, “especially compared to the petty but relentless nastiness that pervades much of academic life.”
Although he goes on to cite many businesses (Southwest Airlines, Costco, Google, and Men’s Wearhouse, among others) that have implemented the zero tolerance policy that he advocates, he does not return to his bleak characterization of academic life. Neither does he explore the reluctance of universities to hold faculty members to the rules of conduct that many businesses are implementing—rules that supplement standard prohibitions against harassment and discrimination—even while they apply them to staff. At my own university, for example, exempt and non-exempt staff are explicitly required to “cooperate and collaborate with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality” as a condition of their employment. Faculty members are not.
The Case Against Faculty Conduct Codes
The reluctance to adopt a code of conduct for faculty members stems in part from a belief also expressed in corporate workplaces: that geniuses must be jerks and that some belligerence, indifference to others, and rudeness are inseparable from the achievements of a Steve Jobs or Bobby Knight. Sutton counters this view by observing that not all successful people are jerks and that jerks succeed despite their cruelty to others, not because of it. I would add that the odds are slim that the professor yelling at the departmental secretary spends the rest of his day bringing about a Copernican revolution in his discipline. Much more frequently, no paradigm-shifting accomplishments offset his poor behavior.
Sutton also argues that even in the extremely unlikely event that the bully is a genius, he still does more harm than good—which is why a Bobby Knight or Michael Eisner eventually wears out his welcome. Making exceptions for seemingly special cases can be damaging, not only in spawning imitators but in depressing the initiative of others. Sutton rightly emphasizes that “negative interactions have five times the effect on mood than positive interactions”: “a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.” Put more positively, fostering an atmosphere of compassion instead of intimidation pays off in attracting and retaining exceptional talent, enabling the free exchanges of ideas, and inspiring a greater willingness on everyone’s part to try new things and take chances without fear of ridicule.
However, the November 1999 American Association of University Professors statement on collegiality as a criterion for faculty evaluation—while conceding the importance of collegiality to teaching, scholarship, and service—favors limiting a faculty member’s evaluation to these three areas on the grounds that vigorous discussions are essential to academic life. Adding collegiality as a yardstick, the AAUP asserts, is not only unnecessary—it risks “ensuring homogeneity,” “chilling faculty debate and discussion,” and curtailing academic freedom by stigmatizing individuals who do not fit in or defer to the group:
"In the heat of important decisions regarding promotion or tenure, as well as other matters involving such traditional areas of faculty responsibility as curriculum or academic hiring, collegiality may be confused with the expectation that a faculty member display “enthusiasm” or “dedication,” evince “a constructive attitude” that will “foster harmony,” or display an excessive deference to administrative or faculty decisions where these may require reasoned discussion. Such expectations are flatly contrary to elementary principles of academic freedom, which protect a faculty member’s right to dissent from the judgments of colleagues and administrations."
Weeding out the gadflies, critics, and malcontents (via the criterion of collegiality), according to the AAUP statement, leaves us with the “genial Babbitts” and casts “a pall of stale uniformity” on what should be a scene of vibrant debate.
“Should be” is the key phrase here. The individuals Sutton is criticizing—the bullies, jerks, and so on—themselves chill debate through personal attacks, intimidation, and invective. One sign of this is the relief felt when they are away. Instead of disappearing, dissent blossoms, as individuals can now express ideas without fear of vicious recrimination and unfounded attack.
Thus, some faculty members have begun exploring codes of conduct, not because they want to squelch free debate but because they want to enable it. They are especially concerned about the most vulnerable faculty members – often newcomers with fresh perspectives and much-needed enthusiasm – who may shy away from departmental deliberations lest they jeopardize their personal futures. The motivation behind codes of conduct is not to make everyone agree but to let everyone feel free to disagree, allowing all voices to be heard.
The literary scholar Linda Hutcheon offers a version of this argument in her recent essay “Saving Collegiality.” While acknowledging the potential dangers of poorly worded and insensitively enforced codes of conduct, Professor Hutcheon reaffirms the importance of mutual respect, civility, and constructive cooperation to healthy debate: “Harmonious human relations need not stifle the right to dissent that we all so rightly treasure; instead they can make dissent easier, because safer. I fail to see how inclusivity and collaboration would necessarily chill debate.”
Professor Hutcheon’s essay is her contribution to a symposium on collegiality captured in Profession 2006, a publication of the Modern Languages Association. I take this symposium as evidence of a growing concern about collegiality. This concern is also indicated by some faculty surveys that the introduction to the symposium cites, including one conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA in which 91.6 percent of faculty members rated “being a good colleague” as “very important” or “essential” in 2004-05 (versus 80 percent in 1989-1990). In another, in response to the question, “What do you believe should be done to best develop young faculty members?” 89 percent of the respondents targeted improvements in collegiality (versus 76 percent calling for better resources). Other signs of renewed appreciation for collegiality include several recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education, among them “How to Get What You Want in Academe” (with its subtitle “Hint: Incivility Is Not the Best Approach”) and “The Function of Dysfunction” (on the causes and effects of academic infighting).
I think that this mounting interest in collegiality stems from the intensification of the forces arrayed against it, many of them cited in the Profession 2006 symposium:
• a star system that widens inequities between the haves and have-nots and equates academic success with a reduction in teaching loads, service commitments, and other work on behalf of the institution;
• greater reliance on adjuncts and part-time faculty with little connection to the departments that hire them;
• tension between administrators and faculty exacerbated by top-down methods of management and increased demands for narrowly defined measures of accountability;
• a poor job market that places individuals at institutions where they may not want to be, thereby fostering feelings of estrangement, disdain for colleagues, and single-minded
efforts to leave via one’s research;
• heightened specialization subdividing already splintered departments;
• recourse to e-mail as a substitute for face-to-face collaborative decision-making. Its impersonality unintentionally licenses individuals to fight and distrust one another even more (as Sutton explains, “apparently this happens because people don’t get the complete picture that comes with ‘being there,’ as e-mail and phones provide little information about the demands that people face and the physical setting they work in, and can’t convey things like the facial expressions, verbal intonations, posture, and ‘group mood’”); and, finally,
• inadequate salaries and benefits at many universities, deepening resentment, stoking competition for increasingly scarce material rewards, and adding new urgency to often longstanding rivalries and feuds.
Add to these forces department chairs who are inadequately prepared for dealing with conflict, and an already a fragile community begins to pull apart, giving antisocial behavior even freer rein.
The disintegration of community takes a special toll on academic workplaces. In a chapter of tips for surviving nasty people and hostile workplaces, Sutton mentions developing indifference and emotional detachment, limiting contact with one’s adversaries, and doing the bare minimum required by one’s job—in effect, disengaging. These are not solutions but survival strategies intended to assist individuals stuck a demoralizing job that they cannot change or escape.
Although I cannot imagine any workplace benefiting from employees only going through the motions, academic departments are especially damaged when faculty members retrench. Even under the best of circumstances, withdrawal comes naturally to many faculty members, who may have been drawn to the academic profession because of the remarkable autonomy it provides. In an atmosphere of fear, backbiting, and bullying, retreat takes on added value, as individuals put their energy into looking out for themselves, avoiding blame, carving out a safe space, and associating only with trusted allies.
Sutton observes that “when people feel mistreated and dissatisfied with their jobs, they are unwilling to do extra work to help their organizations, to expend ‘discretionary effort.’” In universities, “discretionary effort” means service, always subordinated to research and teaching and dependent on the good will of faculty members but now an option that even fewer of them pursue.
What Can Be Done
So collegiality turns out to be important as well as endangered: important because necessary to the free discussions, voluntary service, and constructive collaborations that universities depend on and endangered because so many institutional developments militate against it. Thinking about the collegial atmosphere of a particular institution, one of the contributors to the Profession 2006 symposium wonders if it might not just be “the luck of the draw,” the happy byproduct of a mix of people who just happen to get along, rather than the result of institutional intention.
But other contributors rightly counter that some steps can be taken, especially by department chairs, to foster collegial professional relations: for example, modeling respectful treatment of others, expressing appreciation, hosting social events and lunch meetings, sharing information, informally consulting with and involving colleagues, distributing responsibility, supporting reading groups organized around certain topics, setting up forums where faculty members can discuss teaching or present their research—in short, creating a vibrant social context for decision-making and debate. It can be harder to demonize people you eat lunch with or see at a reception with their children. One contributor to the symposium shrewdly defines a dysfunctional department as “one where the main interactions with the faculty are around tenure decisions.” Embedding difficult discussions in a network of relationships cushions their potentially divisive impact.
At the same time, another contributor to the Profession 2006 symposium, Gerald Graff, makes the important point that these “soft” ways of nudging faculty members into collegiality, though necessary, are not sufficient. As “add-ons” or “Friday afternoon solutions,” they must compete with other priorities in a busy professor’s life. When deadlines call and the pace of the semester picks up, attendance drops off and enthusiasm wanes.
And some of these measures, such as e-mail discussions, may unwittingly reinforce the polarization that they seek to combat. Reading groups in particular are often self-selecting “modes of elective affinity,” as one contributor to the Profession symposium calls them, which can reinforce what Cass Sunstein has called “enclave extremism,” where negative perceptions of outsiders harden.
Professor Graff argues for supplementing these measures with structural changes in the curriculum such as team teaching, exchanging classes with a colleague at mid-semester, and teaching one another’s books. Overcoming the customary isolation of teaching enables collaboration to be incorporated into what we do every week.
There remains, however, the problem of those admittedly few angry, disruptive individuals whom no one would want to teach or mix with—the “bullies, creeps, jerks, weasels, tormentors, tyrants, serial slammers, despots, [and] unconstrained egomaniacs” that I started out this essay with. Again, for conflict to be energizing instead of demoralizing, it must be constructive and free of the personal invective that these individuals traffic in. Valuing debate is one thing; knowing how to engage in it constructively is another. In my experience, some individuals show time and time again that they do not have the will, need, or aptitude for positive interactions with their colleagues, and the persistence of their hostile behavior shows they never will get past the personal animosities and destructive squabbles that they perpetuate.
It is always tempting to ignore these individuals, hope they’ll go away, or find some way of excusing them. In “When Good Doctors Go Bad,” Atul Gawande observes the extraordinary lengths physicians will go to look the other way even when one of their colleagues repeatedly botches surgeries, abuses patients, and triggers lawsuits. As with many cases of professorial misconduct, the people in the best position to see the damage being done can be in the worst position to take action against it: junior physicians, nurses, staff members. Meanwhile, senior physicians are held back partly by the tremendous work involved in documenting and substantiating evidence of incompetence and partly by social pressures.
There’s an official line about how the medical profession is supposed to deal with these physicians: colleagues are expected to join forces promptly to remove them from practice and report them to the medical-licensing authorities, who, in turn, are supposed to discipline them or expel them from the profession. It hardly ever happens, for no tight-knit community can function that way.
As in academic departments, intervention gives way to avoidance but at great cost, in the one case to the incompetent physician’s patients, in the other to the abusive professor’s colleagues and students, who sometimes come into play as prizes to be fought over or enemies to be scorned because they have sided with a rival. Recall that negative interactions have five times the impact of positive ones. The influence of these few destructive individuals dwarfs their number, and the damage they do keeps accruing.
Even so, despite the odds against it, in hospitals and doctors’ practices sometimes the bad physician loses his license or gets sanctioned in some other way. Gawande cites Dr. Kent Neff, a psychiatrist who specializes in assessing and treating physicians, who notes four signs or “behavioral sentinel events” that indicate the problem has gone on too long: persistent, inadequate anger control or abusive behavior; bizarre or erratic conduct; violation of proper professional boundaries; and triggering a disproportionate number of lawsuits or complaints. When these signs are finally heeded, it is essential that action be taken.
In universities, here is where a carefully designed faculty code of conduct can become necessary—as a last resort, when other interventions have failed and the behavior in question falls through the cracks of the faculty handbook. The threshold for invoking the code should be high, reached by an accumulation of the kinds of events mentioned by Neff, not just by one isolated outburst. But the expectation of collegial behavior, of cooperating and collaborating with other employees in a spirit of teamwork and collegiality, should be there—not as a distinct criterion for promotion and tenure but as a condition of employment for faculty as well as for staff. Once faculty members make the difficult decision to act against a disruptive colleague, they must have the means of doing so, lest powerlessness and frustration make their demoralization even worse.
After a code of conduct is institutionalized, it becomes everyone’s responsibility to implement it. As Sutton notes, to be effective, “big policies” need to be linked to “small decencies”: “having the right business philosophies and management practices to support the no asshole rule is meaningless unless you treat the person right in front of you, right now, in the right way.” In my experience, most people treat others in the academic workplace with respect, consideration, and care, conduct code or no conduct code. My intent here has not been to legislate collegiality but to make sure that in those rare instances when enough is enough, when egregious behavior persists and reaches a carefully defined tipping point, faculty members and administrators are in a position to do something about it.
Michael Fischer is vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty, as well as a professor of English, at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Prior to joining the Trinity administration, he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of English at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.